Is technology killing students’ ability to read classical literature?
Caprock Academy, an academically accelerated charter school in Grand Junction, Colo., has the generous policy of giving every student in literature classes new copies of every text studied. (In neighboring public schools, the books are typically loaned to students and must be returned unmarked.) The intent is that Caprock students, many of whom could not otherwise afford to buy the books, begin to build their own personal libraries of great literature and become lifelong readers. The policy also enables students to annotate the texts.
Many students cherish the books and take good care of them, but some do not. In the spring, on the last day of school, one can walk down the hall and find discarded texts on the floor by the lockers and crammed in the big trash cans at the end of the hallways. The books are tossed amongst the flotsam and jetsam students have emptied out of their lockers in preparation for summer break. Some have broken spines and torn pages. Other copies are almost in pristine condition. The high-school English teachers call these books “orphans,” and we rescue them from the trash. What is interesting, however, is which books get thrown out.
Caprock Academy offers a classical education, and students are given approximately six books a year in core literature classes. For example, freshmen read The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, and Aeschylus’ Oresteia. They also study Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin I.
Although the evidence is anecdotal and fluctuates a bit year to year, certain books appear in the trash with greater regularity than others. Emerson’s Essays and Poems, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Virgil’s Aeneid, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin seem to get orphaned more than most — four to seven copies of each out of roughly 40 students per grade level. To be sure, Homer’s epic poems are thrown out as well, but not in the numbers one might expect. Many students like and keep their copies of The Iliad. This begets the questions how — and why — does Homer’s 3,000-year-old epic poem speak to Generation Z?
Today’s teenagers live in a technology-driven world that consumes many of them. Virtually every student has a smartphone, and many of them have Facebook pages, Snapchat or Instagram accounts, and a selfie obsession. Some students spend incredible hours playing on their XBox or PlayStation 4. I’ve overheard students bragging about how much time they devote to video games — one 17-year-old proudly calculated that he’d spent two years of his life playing one single game. Unsurprisingly, this student barely graduated from high school, despite being a conspicuously bright young man. How his parents couldn’t see that he was addicted to video games and intervene, I’ll never know.
My students and my children tell me horror stories about sexting, catfishing, and predators in chat rooms. When teenagers want to take a break from social media or video games, they can binge-watch Neflix, Amazon Prime, or YouTube or stream free porn 24/7. This kind of extraordinary distraction and endless, irresistible entertainment presents problems that are new in the history of human development. Technology has delivered a true kind of soma and many kids seem to be drowning in it.
The unfettered use of technology and social media by young children is a direct threat to a student’s ability to read and study in a sustained and thoughtful way. They are incredibly distracted by the ceaseless buzz of their phones. Even if they read well, technology has harmed many of them: shortened attention spans, a compulsion to overshare every trivial detail of their lives, an expectation that they be entertained at all times, and an exaggerated focus on themselves. All these problems become evident in the classroom and become obstacles teachers must overcome.
The problem is best addressed and solved by responsible parents who are willing to take a hard line and limit or deny access to all the aforementioned starting at birth — until, at the very least, children have become proficient readers and enjoy books and physical activity. However, responsible parents are in short supply. One hears a lot about a crisis in education. An even bigger problem, based on my experience, is the crisis in parenting.
In today’s environment, engaging students effectively often requires appealing to their self-interest. At the beginning of The Iliad, I ask the girls in the class: How would you feel if an army of men was fighting over you? The girls’ responses differ quite a bit: Some like the idea, but most usually don’t want people to die fighting for them. Then, the next day, the boys are asked: Would you fight a war for a woman? The answers vary, but interestingly, there is often a bit more of a consensus: For the right woman, many would fight. The conversations usually initiate reasonably serious thought and students refine and amend their answers as the class discussion evolves. This approach allows them to imagine the conflict as if they were a character in the text and it becomes a little easier to draw them into the story.
There is no getting around the fact that to read and comprehend Homer, students must apply themselves for an extended period of time: The Iliad is 24 books long. They take quizzes and exams, do close readings of key passages, engage in Socratic discussions, and write a ten-page end-of-year paper on “The Role of the Hero in Society.” But there must be more than rigor in a teacher’s pedagogy if one wants to engage Generation Z and genuinely educate them.
Probably the most popular and in some ways effective way to engage students is to assign Iliad projects. The assignment generates enthusiasm for the text and deepens students’ understanding of the epic by allowing them to interpret it in a personal and hands-on way. They work as individuals or in groups and are free to choose the project — as long as it has legitimate academic merit. Some use their skill and talent with technology to make remarkably accurate movie adaptations of key scenes: to do this well, students must read and comprehend the text. Presentations have included dioramas of battle scenes, models of Greek ships, PowerPoint or Prezi presentations on the weapons of the Trojan War, the gods, diseases, and burial rites. One popular choice is making a replica of the famous shield Hephaestus, the god of fire, forges for Achilles.
One student, Brianne Pinson, made a stunning version of Achilles’ shield for my class and won first place in the local Altrusa Art Fair with her work. However, discussing Achilles’ shield and all it signifies usually takes a very sobering turn. When I recently asked my class: If you were to make the modern equivalent of Achilles’ shield, what images should be put on the front? It only took a few seconds before someone answered, “A smart phone right in the middle.” Then another student said, “Someone using a smart phone to film a person being beat up, not helping the victim, but making a video to post on YouTube.” The class grew uncharacteristically somber as students considered these remarks.
What happens to Achilles while he’s withdrawn from the war is another moment that offers lessons that many students are open to learning. Away from the frenzy of battle, quietly in his tent, he has time for introspection. It is after this quiet time that he rejects the war and his culture, especially the pursuit of honor and glory (timê and kleos, in Greek). Achilles plans to sail home and live a longer but modest life of anonymity. For the students, this is an excellent moment for a Socratic discussion about the importance of unplugging from technology in order to be introspective, to follow the Greek admonition to know thyself, and also to discuss the value of questioning one’s culture — and rejecting it, if needed.
Every fall, Caprock Academy has a USO show to honor our armed forces. The names of every veteran or active-duty service member related to students, faculty, or the administration are projected onto the gym wall throughout the concert. Honoring the men and women who fight and protect the country enriches some students’ understanding of The Iliad. Many can recognize the poignancy of certain moments, like when Hector’s son bursts into tears when he sees his father, helmet on, about to return to war. The modern equivalent of this scene plays out locally at the Grand Junction regional airport when loved ones in uniform deploy and leave their families behind.
This awareness makes it easier for students to appreciate the sacrifices military men and women make and also to understand what classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson calls “the tragic view of life.” It is a central premise in The Iliad. To wit, Zeus’s assessment of mankind in the Fagles translation: “There is nothing alive more agonized than man of all that breathe and crawl across the earth.” This leads to a discussion about whether Zeus is right about mankind and what is meant by the term “the human condition.” Students point to the cruelty of Internet trolls as evidence that Zeus is right.
After Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles is so devastated by the loss that he does things that, as a Greek soldier, he would not normally do and that are outside the norms of the society: human sacrifices, defiling the corpse of Hector (which the gods preserve despite Achilles’ best efforts), and refusing to bury Patroclus until his ghost implores Achilles to do so. These events raise the question of whether extreme situations such as war have the ability to dehumanize and transform human beings — and then, if there is a need and a duty afterwards, for society to help heal and reassimilate warriors back into domestic life.
Next, we look to see if Homer addresses the idea of warriors rejoining civilian life and processing grief. King Priam risks his life and crosses enemy lines in the dead of night to beg Achilles for Hector’s body back. The vulnerable old man goes into the Greek camp and straight into the proverbial lion’s den — but is not eaten by the lion. I ask the class: Why not? What accounts for this moment of grace? Is there something about the old man that stirs Achilles’ heart? Perhaps King Priam’s courage and his overwhelming love for his son? Something about the bond between any father and his son? Or maybe it is the anguish and loss radiating off the great man.
Priam says, “I have endured what no man on earth has ever done before — I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.” Achilles is shocked to see Priam and disarmed by his words. Homer describes his reaction: “Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief.” Achilles softens and weeps and breaks down. His enemy does the same. Both men have been devastated by what each side has done to the other.
After they share a meal, Achilles allows King Priam to leave with his son’s corpse so the proper burial rites can be observed. In the end, Achilles lets go of his rage. He shows decency and respect to the old king, and thus rejoins humanity.
By the end of the narrative, even Generation Z can sense some of the wisdom, terrible beauty, and sadness alive in Homer’s work, but I’d be lying if I didn’t write that many students find it anticlimactic. Where is the Trojan horse? When does Achilles get shot in the ankle? What about the sacking of Troy? Of course none of these events happen in The Iliad — just in Hollywood’s version. The true version ends beautifully and gracefully with Hector’s funeral and interment.
Very few high-school freshmen can grasp Homer’s depth or appreciate the scale and intricacy of his work. If the students are snorkelers looking at a beautiful reef in a tropical sea, their masks are fogged and the dazzling fish and ethereal world moves behind a curtain of mist. However, if one can bring them close enough to see a little bit of the reef clearly, then the hope is that one day they will return, older and wiser, with a clearer mask, and see the whole reef in its full majesty.
Perhaps that is why, in the spring, on the last day of school, when the English teachers walk down the halls rescuing the orphaned books from the trash, surprisingly few of the orphans are copies of The Iliad.
— Howard Butcher is a writer, a high-school English teacher, and a former school-board president. His first novel is Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea.